Young Álvaro was a precocious drawer, brought up among many siblings in a household headed by his grandmother, who had returned from Brazil to Portugal with her children when she widowed, and sparked by his uncle who even encouraged him to assemble his drawings.
This artistic talent led him to consider in career as a sculptor, which his family cold shouldered, particularly his father, an engineer who feared economic insecurity to be inseparable from that occupation. Siza therefore decided to sign up for architecture at the school of Fine Arts in the hopes of eventually transitioning to what he understood at the time to be his calling. But architecture ended up captivating his interest and in classroom he began to discover the profession through an enthusiastic, charismatic professor, the cultured, cosmopolitan Fernando Távora, ten years his senior and whose studio he joined while he was still a student.
Together with the importance attached to the vernacular in his school years, it was his childhood admiration for Gaudí, whose work he visited on a family trip, and also for Aalto, who he knew only through L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, that would all converge to serve as the aesthetic sources of his initial works, all near Porto. In the four Matosinhos houses, he learned the building trade in his conversations with the masons. The Casa de Té Boa Nova in Leça de Palmeira, the result of a competition he won while he was still with Távora in his firm, was erected in a spectacular rocky setting beside the sea with so much sensitivity to the landscape and intelligence that it became his first masterwork, praised in the Pequenho Congresso held at the time in Porto. It remains a pilgrimage for architects today. In the extraordinary pools in the ocean, very near the Casa de Té, he domesticated abrupt nature by using geometry. The design was corrected during its building and subsequently by the waves and the tides wreaking their exact, unrepeatable result.
En 1962, with the work at Leça underway, Siza married painter and drawer Maria Antónia Marinho Leite, who passed away ten years later leaving the architect with two children. He balanced their upbringing with his career, which at the time focused on single family dwellings through which he developed his organic language. One example is the Alcino Cardoso house in Moledo de Minho, an extension of a vacation home whose felicitous topographical insertion makes it resemble a premature ruin. The same can be said for Casa Beires in Póvoa de Varzim, where the owner’s determination to squeeze a courtyard into a very small plot of land led to breaking the prism with glass folds earning the structure the nickname ‘casa bomba’ (bomb house). Years later, Siza applied this expressive language with a penchant towards curves and careened surfaces in the Banco Borges & Irmao in Vila do Conde, an understated monumental work that was to obtain the critics’ applause and the European Mies Award.
The 25th of April Revolution in 1974 was a time of extraordinary euphoria and hope and opened up a new chapter both in the life of the nation and also of the architect who expressed his political commitment from that point on through social housing. He often intervened in processes with the participation of the public. The SAAL de São Victor and the Bouça II ensembles, both in Porto, stand as examples. They were promoted by students like Eduardo Souto de Moura and backed by the branch of the democratic government of Portugal in charge of housing, the architect himself and critic Nuno Portas. The genesis of these projects proved that inhabitants could intervene both in the layouts of their houses and in decisions of town planning per se. The same can be said for the Quinta de Malagueira housing project in Evora, where vernacular constants mingled with the characteristic infrastructure of the ‘peducts’, elevated porches that supplied water while offering shade. Siza’s experience in neighbourhood participation earned him his first commission outside Portugal, a fragment of a block in Berlin’s Alt IBA located in Kreuzberg. Given the large population of Turkish immigrants, the great financial discipline involved, and the inevitable political controversy, this project was finally known as Bonjour Tristesse after the graffiti written there and preserved today as heritage.
The new political climate in Portugal encouraged Siza to resume teaching, which he had abandoned during the dictatorship, and his ties to the Porto Faculty of Architecture were further strengthened in 1987 when his former mentor Távora was able to convince his faculty colleagues to have the new building directly commissioned to Siza given his prestige as an architect at the time. That work was to be completed shortly after Siza received the Pritzker Prize. Also at that time, his first work in Spain was opened in Santiago de Compostela. The Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo is admirably mindful not only of the context but also the adjacent cemetery where a sculpture of his admired Eduardo Chillida stands. This same period saw the rebuilding of Lisbon’s Chiado neighbourhood after the 1988 fire. Siza was chosen for the rebuilding by a mayor who knew to count on the architect’s sensitivity to cauterize the historical city’s wounds.
In the last phase of his career, having become an international star whose works had been completed on different continents, the master was able to surprise with each new undertaking, from the thrilling Santa María church in Marco de Canavezes, reacting with a mannerist language to memories of his catholic upbringing, to the Portugal pavilion for Expo ’98 in Lisbon with its iconic concrete awning and syncopated paced porticos adaptable to any future use to arise, to the extraordinary Iberê Camargo Foundation in Porto Alegre, a sculptural gesture in an abrupt setting that was to receive the 2014 American Mies Award and mark the architect’s return to Brazil where his father was born. With his archives scattered today between Montreal’s CCA where most are conserved, Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Foundation and Porto’s Serralves Foundation, Siza continues to build and draw as if he were beginning as a child, making architecture a ‘poetic profession’ and creating a universe of forms that place him among the great artists of our time.